Precipitous Labor: Everything You Need to Know

Mom giving birth holding husbands hand

While most labors stretch several long hours, some women experience a “precipitous labor” that only lasts two or three hours. Fast labor seems great at first glance (fewer contractions and less pain!) but it could actually come with a host of worrisome side effects ranging from emotional trauma to baby head injury. Here’s everything you need to know about the symptoms, causes, and complications of rapid or precipitous labor.

What is Precipitous Labor?

Labor duration depends on factors like Baby’s position, whether you had an epidural, and previous childbirth experience. Early stages of labor usually last six to 12 hours for a first-time mother and two to five hours for an experienced mother. Active labor, when your cervix dilates and contractions get stronger, stretches for an additional four to eight hours on average–although the length of active labor can vary greatly.

Rapid or precipitous labor doesn’t follow this typical timeline. “Precipitous labor is when the duration of labor is two or three hours.” says Dr. Iffath Hoskins, M.D., maternal fetal medicine specialist at NYU Langone Health. “In precipitous labor, the patient’s cervix rapidly dilates from a lesser dilation (like two or three centimeters) to fully dilated.”

Precipitous Labor Risk Factors

There are no concrete risk factors for having a precipitous labor. But “if a woman has had lots of children, they are at risk for delivering more quickly,” according to David F. Colombo, M.D., medical director for obstetrics at Spectrum Health Medical Group in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Also, women who have a history of precipitous labor are more likely to experience it again.

Precipitous Labor Symptoms

With precipitous labor, symptoms come on suddenly and intensely. You may feel several contractions that occur back-to-back. Some women experience one continuous contraction or abrupt pressure. Either way, the rapid cervix dilation may cause pain and the urge to push, says Dr. Hoskins.

Complications of Precipitous Labor and Delivery

Some women view precipitous births as a good thing, says Dr. Colombo. “People enjoy delivering their child more quickly,” he explains. They won’t need to spend hours enduring the symptoms of labor – including painful contractions that usually last throughout the active phase. However, precipitous labor and delivery often come with unpleasant side effects.

For example, a mother may tear her vagina or perineum as a result of the rapid birth, says Dr. Hoskins. The uterus or vagina may also hemorrhage. Additionally, if doctors have to rush and “catch” the baby, the precipitate delivery might not be completely sterile. “There are known risks to the baby, like injury on the head or brain, due to the rapid descent through the mother’s soft and bony tissues,” adds Dr. Hoskins. Specifically, the pressure change could cause intracranial hemorrhage, and the baby could aspire amniotic fluid.

Shoulder dystocia, which happens when the shoulder gets caught in the mother’s pelvis, can also happen. And once the baby is delivered, “they may have a slower transition to outside life as shown by mild, transient respiratory difficulty,” says Dr. Hoskins. Because the mother is so unprepared for labor and birth, she might suffer shock, depression, or other emotional turmoil after rapid labor.

Getting to the Hospital

Precipitous labor is especially worrisome if the mother lives far away from the hospital, since there’s a chance of delivering en route. Also, when a woman finally arrives, labor may have progressed too much for pain medications.

If you live many miles away from the nearest hospital, Dr. Colombo suggests discussing your due date and birthing plan with your healthcare provider. Your doctor may suggest coming to the hospital earlier than the average person, taking childbirth classes, and preparing for the potential of a home birth.

Dr. Colombo also advises against scheduling an early induction. “People might want to be induced early to make sure they’re in the hospital, but induction before 39 weeks may cause issues,” he says. Waiting to term lessens your baby’s risk of respiratory problems and improper brain development, among other things.


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